Thoughts on METROID DREAD, 2D METROID design, and MercurySteam’s redemption arc

When METROID DREAD was unveiled at E3 2021, I immediately had mixed feelings – massive excitement for a new 2D METROID, naturally, but also tempered expectations as it was being developed by MercurySteam. I never had the chance to play their previous METROID game – SAMUS RETURNS – but I did play through their earlier attempt at the genre, the absolutely abysmal CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW: MIRROR OF FATE. That game showed such a fundamental failure to understand the appeal of this style of game, that even with SAMUS RETURNS having a decent reputation, I found it difficult to have too much faith in MercurySteam’s ability to deliver a worthy sequel.

Still, I knew that I wanted to play the game, for academic purposes if nothing else. I spent the months leading up to the game’s release playing through a number of 2D METROID games – some for the first time, some not – and as I kind of charted the series’ evolution from playing them all back to back, I became increasingly curious to see specifically how DREAD fit into that equation. Would it be a largely toothless retread of SUPER METROID the way ZERO MISSION had been, or would it actually incorporate aspects of FUSION… or perish the thought, break some new ground?

Following the playthroughs leading up to DREAD, I can unequivocally say that METROID FUSION had become my favourite of the series (as far as official releases go anyway – AM2R is probably up there too, for the record). SUPER METROID is great, of course, but there are things about it that always have, and continue to irk me. Samus handles like a refrigerator, weapon/item switching is incredibly clunky, it’s got pacing issues (Maridia sucks ass), etc. The biggest reasons I prefer FUSION come down to the vastly refined controls and movement, the tighter pacing and difficulty balance, but also a different approach to exploration.

SA-X was awesome, but far from the only great thing about METROID FUSION

METROID FUSION has been given a lot of guff over the years for being “too linear”, and while this isn’t entirely unwarranted – the game is structurally different from SUPER METROID in a number of ways – I think it’s mostly a side effect of the game’s more deliberate design. Where SUPER METROID tends to just broadly gesture in the direction of “exploration”, METROID FUSION gives you explicit objectives at explicit locations – but tasks you with figuring out where and how to break out of the map’s boundaries to get to your goal. By guiding (or even restricting) the player to a specific smaller area of the map, the game is able to significantly crank up the challenge and complexity of the environmental puzzles, and even when they have you stumped, you don’t really need to worry about whether you’re in the right place. As a result, there’s a lot less room for feeling like you’re just doing aimless meandering.

Going into METROID DREAD then, I had worried somewhat that FUSION’s status as a kind of black sheep of the series would have compelled MercurySteam to play it safe and go for a pretty straight rehash of the people’s favourite SUPER METROID – so I’m thrilled to say that “safe” might just be the last word I’d use to describe the game. I certainly have a few complaints with METROID DREAD, but on the whole I did enjoy the game more than I thought I would (or at least more than I feared), and in particular I’m impressed with how bold the game is about playing with series and genre conventions. From structure, to narrative, to Samus’s abilities, very few things are treated as sacred, and I think the game is better for it.

Right off the bat, the game is unabashedly a sequel to METROID FUSION. Much of the game’s narrative, structure, and even some of the mechanics lean heavily on the X parasite, the main antagonist from FUSION. And at least early on, even the regular enemies are just as threatening as they were in that game. Although the map design is fundamentally quite different, the game does retain FUSION’s heavy guidance, both in the form of one-way doors that lock behind you, and computer terminal briefings.

The other thing that is perhaps even more immediately apparent, is that Samus is an absolute joy to control. Despite forcing you to use the analogue stick for movement – which I generally despise in 2D games – to my great shock, the game actually handles well (at least on a Pro Controller). Aiming can be a little finicky, but with Samus more agile and limber than ever before, simply running and jumping around feels awesome. Some of the weapons and abilities you eventually unlock require a bit of finger gymnastics, but aside from the generally inexcusable omission of any sort of controller configuration, I never really had any issue with it.

In fact, if I had any issues with the abilities in METROID DREAD, it’s maybe just the occasional struggle to remember all of them! There are indeed quite a few weapons and abilities in the game, and impressively few of them feel rehashed or recycled from previous games. Even staples like the Morph Ball, Grapple Beam, and Space Jump either work differently, is handed out at a completely different point in the game than you’d expect, or both! On top of that, several of the new abilities in the game complement Samus’s kit really well, and are fun to use in traversal as well as combat. Quite the contrast from MIRROR OF FATE!

The anime teleport dash is definitely one of the most fun new addition to Samus’s abilities in METROID DREAD

The end result is that, moment to moment, the game never really feels like any other METROID. Not just in the feel and handling of Samus, but in everything from basic traversal to Speed Booster tricks, to map layouts, to boss fights, you name it. METROID DREAD strikes a great balance between feeling fresh and new on one hand, but familiar and faithful on the other. And to me that is at the core of why it is such a worthy, and ultimately successful, METROID sequel.

My biggest takeaway from playing through the other games leading up to DREAD (aside from ZERO MISSION being a lot more mediocre than I remembered it), is that there really is no such thing as a ‘METROID formula’. I feel like that’s a concept that gets bandied about due to countless formulaic indie games inspired by SUPER METROID more than anything, but as far as Nintendo’s own series goes, each instalment kind of goes out of its way to tweak and subvert what came before. Ironically, it could be argued that SUPER METROID – which tends to get hailed as the pinnacle of the series – is perhaps the least subversive or innovative conceptually. Of course it does however more than make up for that with its quantum leaps in fidelity and polish!

In any case, I’ve come to see this constant reinvention as core to the series, which made me really happy to see METROID DREAD really embrace it. The game never seems to feel obligated to repeat familiar beats for the sake of it, nor afraid to change anything up if it would make things more interesting. I really have to give credit to MercurySteam for not just committing to this direction for the game, but also executing on it so well! Thinking about METROID DREAD and comparing it to SUPER and FUSION, I really struggle to think of any mechanic or the like where I didn’t consider the changes an improvement. That’s definitely not something I expected going in!

Beyond those smaller and more subtle changes and innovations, the major new addition to METROID DREAD is of course the EMMI units – the nigh-invincible and relentless sentry robots that hunt Samus throughout the game. The EMMIs are a bit of a mixed bag, as far as I’m concerned – I like the concept, but the execution is uneven, and a little bit lacking in places. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they are a major flaw of the game on the whole, but one or two particular EMMI encounters were by far the least enjoyable parts of the game for me; bringing rare spikes in difficulty – and more critically – frustration.

On the whole though, I dug how the EMMI encounters are set up. Whenever you enter specific zones (characterized by a universal tile set and creepy screen effect), you have to either sneak, hide or run to avoid the patrolling EMMI. If you are discovered the EMMI will give chase, and if you’re caught, they’ll hit you with an instant kill (which is technically possible – but deliberately very awkward – to counter). Checkpoints are incredibly liberal however, so while some people seem to have struggled a lot with the EMMIs’ instant kills, they frankly never really bothered me. In fact, while I started off thinking the EMMI encounters were mostly kind of tedious sneaking sections, as I built up Samus’s repertoire of moves, and became more confident in my own abilities, dodging and juking to move past the EMMIs at full speed became a lot of fun!

There is a flipside however: each EMMI encounter consists of two parts – once you have been able to sneak your way to the centre of the zone, after a brief mini-boss encounter you will be equipped with a special beam weapon that will allow you to destroy the EMMI. The first time this happens, it was a really cool subversion – avoiding the EMMI had been really tense, so the sudden realisation that I’d get to not just fight back, but completely annihilate the thing with a unique weapon, was exhilarating! Unfortunately though, actually using the weapon is needlessly awkward and fiddly, requiring more aiming precision than the Switch Pro Controller’s analogue stick can comfortably offer. I shudder to think what it’s like playing on Joy-Cons!

This issue only gets exacerbated as the further into the game you get, the more demanding the EMMI battles become. So there’s this kind of odd transition throughout the game where EMMI encounters start off being a tedious stealth section followed by a satisfying payoff, but gradually turn into engaging platforming challenges followed by a frustrating slog of a “skill check”. All in all it makes for a very uneven experience. Truthfully though, I think all they really would have needed to do is to make the beam weapon not require sustained, perfect aim for like ten seconds straight, and even the worst parts would’ve been a lot more palatable.

Kraid is a rare returning boss from previous METROID games – but this is probably the most fun it’s ever been to fight him

Luckily, the EMMI battles are an anomaly – METROID DREAD has quite a few boss fights, and for the most part, they are really quite excellent! The bosses all test the player on both their skills in pattern recognition and familiarity with Samus’s abilities, and – impressively enough – almost every boss includes some kind of gimmick as well as one or more QTEs, and I actually enjoyed it. Not a bad effort!

Although lots of previous METROID games have had some really cool boss fights – or perhaps more accurately, cool bosses – a lot of the time they are awesome creature designs carried by a moody atmosphere and dramatic set piece elements… but not necessarily that interesting to actually fight. More often than not, METROID boss fights tend to (or at least can) kind of devolve into unloading all your missiles and super missiles while hoping that your HP will outlast the boss’s. METROID FUSION forces you to engage a little more intelligently through sheer brute force – everything in that game hits like a truck, including bosses – but that’s about it.

METROID DREAD takes a page out of FUSION’s book, with bosses dealing massive damage to the point where trying to tank it without a strategy isn’t a viable option. But they’re also designed to allow for fun and varied use of Samus’s abilities – even the cinematic interstitials you’d expect from big spectacle boss fights in a modern action game are done in a clever way: they’re pseudo-interactive, allowing the player to wail on the boss with gunfire and missiles while the cinematic is playing out. It’s a simple but really smart way of letting the player be part of what would otherwise be an unskippable cutscene, elegantly solving the otherwise common issue of game characters doing the coolest shit only when the player isn’t controlling them.

It bums me out how the elevator cinematics feel so disconnected from the game – but I do love their atmosphere

For everything that I felt METROID DREAD got surprisingly right, I do however have one major criticism of the game: World design. It’s not really an issue of the map’s design or layout, nor an issue of the visual fidelity of the environments… although those aspects do play into things a little bit. My main beef is simply with the overall sense of place, and how poorly – by METROID standards – the game communicates what area you are in, what sets the areas apart from each other, and how they relate to each other geographically.

As soon as you come out of the game’s opening cutscene, Samus finds herself deep within the core of a mysterious planet, and she is tasked with making her way back to the planet’s surface. This is a pretty novel inversion of the typical METROID premise, but sadly this idea is severely undercut by how disconnected it is from the game itself. The very first rooms in the game are set in what looks like some kind of cave on a tropical beach, with what appears to be sunlight in the background…? It’s a visually appealing setting, but it barely feels underground, let alone deep inside the planet’s core.

This disconnect between where the in-game map is telling you where you are, and where the game itself is telling you where you are, continues throughout the game. You travel from these caves, through industrial settings, to some kind of lava caves, to an open ocean, a forest, a temple of sorts, etc, before finally making it to the surface. What’s weird is that the relative geographical orientation of these areas don’t at all reflect what the map is telling you about which of them are closer to the planet’s core or the surface. Half of them feature what appears to be atmosphere, sunlight and/or weather, so at times it’s very easy to forget that the game is meant to be set underground in the first place!

Compounding this issue is the fact that the map is incredibly dense, with a ton of interconnectivity between regions – where previous 2D METROID games had maps with fairly intuitive spatial relationships, METROID DREAD is filled to the brim with trains, elevators and teleporters that take you all around the map in all kinds of ways. I think the way that classic 2D METROID elevator transitions take place entirely within the game space really does help tie a game’s world together, and with DREAD’s “cinematic” approach, areas end up feeling kind of disconnected; further weakening the concept of progressing from the planet’s core to its surface.

Where in the game is this room set? I really couldn’t tell you!

Frankly, it’s the one area where I feel SUPER METROID has the clear upper hand. The simple progression of Crateria > Brinstar > Norfair > Tourian really does feel like you’re digging deeper into planet Zebes, figuratively and literally. And even with the map screen giving you significantly less information than newer games, it doesn’t take a ton of mental effort to create a rough mental map of not just how these areas relate to one another, but even where certain rooms are located within them. Each area has its own feel, defined on a basic level by tile sets and background music, sure, but also in the shape and progression of rooms themselves. Previous METROIDS take any and every opportunity to reinforce the identity and relative location of each area, and this helps a ton not just with a game’s atmosphere, but also with navigation.

This is where I think METROID DREAD fumbles the hardest. The way travelling between regions is both more open-ended, and more disconnected from the game space, makes it much harder to internalise how they relate to one another – and to make matters worse, several of the game’s areas lack a strong visual identity to begin with. Though most of the later areas are much stronger in terms of theming, for some bizarre reason the first several areas of the game are not really themed at all! Not every room is entirely generic – but caves, coral reefs, industrial settings and more are all represented in several different regions, with not a lot of visual distinction between them. Tile sets, map layouts, room shapes, etc – none of these tools are really used to give each region their own identity (for the first half of the game, anyway) which feels really weird.

Worse still, each region has its own EMMI zone – every one of which looks virtually identical. I understand why that is the case, and to be honest, the EMMI zones are probably where the game is the most effective at communicating atmosphere, tone and narrative through its environments, so I don’t entirely hate it. However, a sizeable chunk of each region literally looking the same definitely doesn’t help when the game is already struggling to give each of its areas a distinct personality.

It’s not enough to drag down the game entirely by any means – I still enjoyed the game a lot, and maybe I will develop a better feel for the game’s map on repeated playthroughs – but I think it’s a misfire that really stands out given how many other things MercurySteam got right.

All things considered, I am somewhat surprised – but very happy – to conclude that METROID DREAD is very much a worthy METROID 5. Despite some misgivings I really did have a great time with the game, and I was consistently impressed with design choices made – as well as the polish of the execution. It is of course hard to say how much impact Nintendo’s supervision (and budget) had on how the game turned out, but either way I frankly never expected MercurySteam to deliver something of this caliber.

It’s exciting to hear that METROID DREAD has been well received, and by all accounts did very well commercially too. I never really had that much interest in the METROID PRIME games… in fact, I always kind of had a chip on my shoulder about Nintendo’s insistence on making more prequels to fill in needless backstory instead of following up on the changing status quo post-FUSION; so the prospect of a METROID PRIME 4 never really excited me all that much. When it was first announced, I suppose I appreciated any signs of life from METROID, but it was a blip on the radar at best compared to the genuine excitement I felt for DREAD. It will be interesting to see how PRIME 4 performs though; both because I think the METROID series is probably set to be more commercially successful than ever, but by extension because it could – hopefully – also make way for additional 2D games.

Granted, there is a possibility that PRIME 4 does ten times the numbers DREAD did, and Nintendo will never look back – but hey, if that ends up being the case, I’m really glad we at least got one last good 2D METROID. With some luck however, there will be enough data to support the notion that there’s room for multiple types of METROID games, and – I can barely believe I’m saying this – I’d be very excited to see MercurySteam tackle a METROID 6 as well.

Worst case scenario though, we at least have one new game still on the horizon, and relatively speaking, the METROID series seems to be having more going for it than in a long time. For once, I feel pretty excited about the immediate future of the series, and hey – that’s gotta count for something.

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